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Desert Hearts (free)

  • Vilas Hall 821 University Avenue Madison, WI, 53706 United States (map)
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Donna Deitch's 1985 film Desert Hearts is set in 1959, when Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver), a nervous Columbia University literature professor travelling to Reno to get a divorce from her husband, instead strikes up a flirtation with the free-spirited casino worker Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau). The film's exploration of sexual politics and use of Reno to re-work the Western as a landscape for romantic drama made Desert Hearts a cult classic, especially as positive portrayals of lesbians were rare even for art-house films—and, in the 1980's mainstream, non-existent.

Before this queer-romance was released, the films' stars were told it would ruin their careers. Initial mixed reviews panned the plot as unbelievable and lifeless, while Deitch had to shoulder a lot of the promotional work for the film herself. Over time, though, Desert Hearts has been vindicated. It was awarded a spot in the much coveted Criterion Collection in 2017, inspiring new appreciation for how it used at-the-time radical sexual politics to uncover the difficulties and traumas of individuals coming to terms with their environment.

Reno and "the West" are often thought of as a places of moral ambiguity, and citizens of the mythical West are expected take the law into their own hands—except when it comes to their sexual preferences. The hypocrisy of this shotgun morality is starkly highlighted in Desert Hearts as events slowly yet dramatically unravel. Even today, one doesn't have to imagine scenarios like a mother figure disowning someone she once treated like a daughter for being queer, or the necessity of a cross-country escape from a bad marriage. After 15 years, Desert Hearts holds up as a work of vital and beautiful storytelling. —Reid Kurkerewicz